U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro has been representing Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District since 1990 and before that was executive director of Countdown ’87, the national campaign that successfully stopped U.S. military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, and as chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd. During her time in Congress, DeLauro, a Democrat, has been a tireless advocate for policies that improve the health and well-being of all Americans. She strongly supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and has stood up for funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies and strong food safety laws, among other measures. She was honored as APHA’s 2012 Distinguished Legislator of the Year for her work on behalf of public health.
Q: You were honored recently as APHA’s 2012 Public Health Legislator of the Year. What inspires you to speak out so strongly for public health?
My experiences and my faith really drive my priorities, including my passion for ensuring everyone has access to quality, affordable health care. I am an ovarian cancer survivor, and I was one of the lucky ones — I had access to great doctors who caught the disease early. But no one should have to rely on luck, which is why I have worked with my colleagues to raise awareness around health care issues, especially gynecological cancers.
And my Catholic faith has driven me to speak out about public health, as it has about a number of other subjects I care about. Traditional Catholic teachings instruct us to help the less fortunate among us and look out for those struggling to get by. There are few things more important than someone’s health, and this is just one reason why I was so proud when we passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, ensuring that millions of Americans would finally have access to affordable health insurance.
Q: Public health funding has been a critical issue for decades, but especially during our current tight economic climate. How do you convince your fellow lawmakers of the importance of funding such agencies as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and investing overall in public health?
Many of my colleagues have had their lives touched by cancer or other diseases that our researchers are trying so hard to eradicate. I think they know the importance of this work, but with the budgetary constraints the country is currently facing, we have had to make a lot of tough choices. And as the senior Democrat on the subcommittee that funds the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including the CDC, I have been able to advocate for increased funding for these agencies.
Ultimately, it comes down to what we want our priorities to be as a nation. In the most prosperous country in the world, do we sit back and think it is okay that people cannot get cancer screenings or seniors have to choose between food and medicine? I do not think that it is, and I think most people would agree with me on that, including most members of Congress.
That is why the voices of activists are so important. Members of Congress may not always listen to each other, but we will listen to our constituents. When people make a phone call or send an email telling their representative or senators they want them to protect funding for public health, it makes a difference. It is a priority if we make it one.
Q: You were a strong advocate for the passage of the Affordable Care Act and have pressed for the law’s full implementation. What do you see as some of the most important provisions of the law?
There are so many great things to have come out of the Affordable Care Act that it is hard to pick just one — it would be like picking my favorite grandchild! But the legislation is really groundbreaking in a couple of areas, namely women’s health and ensuring consumers have the information they need to make well-informed choices.
Thanks to the ACA, for the first time ever, a woman’s health is on equal footing with that of her husband, brother, son or father. Before the law passed, being a woman was practically a preexisting condition, and women who could get coverage were often charged more than men. That is no longer the case. And women will no longer be denied coverage because they were a victim of domestic violence or had a C-section, decisions that used to be all too common in the insurance industry.
The ACA also created a “Summary of Benefits and Coverage,” which health insurers must make available to all applicants and enrollees. The provision creating this was based on legislation I authored, and I take great pride in its inclusion. This clearly worded, plain English document provides basic information about insurance plans — like deductibles, out-of-pocket expenses and services not covered by the plan — in a standardized format, so consumers can make head or tail of the plans being offered.
And lastly is nutrition, specifically menu labeling. I am proud to have authored the provision requiring many food establishments, such as fast food restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores, to disclose calorie counts on their menus. It is no coincidence that, as obesity rates have skyrocketed, Americans have eaten more and more meals outside the home. In fact, research has shown that not only are many Americans unaware of the recommended calorie intake suggested for healthy living, they have a hard time assessing the calorie level of a fast-food meal. Menu labeling will help empower consumers, enabling them to make better-informed choices.
Q: You have been passionately outspoken about the deep cuts to the SNAP program proposed in the House version of the farm bill. How can Congress best preserve this important program?
Unfortunately, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly referred to as food stamps — has become a target as lawmakers look for areas to cut in the federal budget. This is a dangerous mistake. The House farm bill would cost 2 million to 3 million people access to SNAP entirely and nearly 300,000 children would lose access to the free school meals they need to thrive and develop. This bill would have a devastating, negative impact on the Food Stamp Program relied on by hungry kids and families across the country.
Balancing the federal budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable is unconscionable. Luckily, there are other members of Congress who feel the way I do, and we have spoken out against these cuts. But people who care passionately about this issue, and understand its importance, need to contact their representatives and senators to make sure we do not punish families who are already struggling to get by.
Q: How can advocates help build champions for public health issues in Congress?
We need you to keep pushing your elected officials on the issues you care about, whether it’s affordable health care, nutrition or something else entirely. Your elected officials will respond if you make your voice heard. And if you still feel your message is not being heard, run for office yourself; we can never have enough passionate people serving in public office. I am often reminded of something my mother, the longest serving member of New Haven, Connecticut’s Board of Aldermen, wrote decades ago, but it is just as true today:
“It is not my intention to be critical, rather my motive in writing this article is to encourage the female members of this organization to take a more active part in its affairs. We are not living in the middle ages when a woman’s part in life was merely to serve her master in her home, but we have gradually taken our place in every phase of human endeavor, and even in the here-to-fore stronghold of the male sex: politics.
“I have noticed that the girls, unlike the men, are timid in asserting themselves, and many a good idea is lost, having been suppressed by its creator. Come on girls, let’s make ourselves heard.”